Vittorio Brambilla: Gorilla in the midst

Vittorio Brambilla was nicknamed 'The Monza Gorilla' by the rest of the racing world, but he was much better than most people gave him credit for. Paul Fearnley unravels the truth on the Italian

Vittorio Brambilla sliding his March-Ford at Watkins Glen during the 1976 United Stated GP

Brambilla at Watkins Glen in '76. He finished the season strongly.

Grand Prix Photo

He’d nursed his slick-shod car in shine and rain for 54 laps — but now hail was a distinct possibility.

“By climbing the pit wall fence you could see the black clouds coming,” says March designer Robin Herd. “We didn’t have pit-to-car radio then — but I swear, as he came past, we made eye contact, and we both knew now was the time.” He was the first to pit for wets. There were 12 laps left. The timing was perfect: Pace, Scheckter, Hunt, Donohue, Depailler, Watson, Brise, Henton, Morgan and Wilson Fittipaldi aquaplaned off on their next laps, while leader Emerson Fittipaldi completed his 56th in the pits for wets. All of which meant that the only driver to complete his 56th lap at racing speed on that blustery Silverstone day was rock ape number one, the 37-year-old with the wrestler’s physique and (supposedly) technique: Vittorio Brambilla, The Monza Gorilla’.

“He was never rated. We could never understand that,” says Herd. “I think snobbery was involved; people dismissed him because he was a mechanic from Italy. From my point of view, his understanding of a racing car made him great to work with. He was one of the best test drivers we ever had. True, he knew no fear and sometimes took too many risks in a race — but he was a seriously good driver. He had fantastic car control, which his performances in the wet proved.”

The Monza Gorilla’s evolution was a protracted one. It began with motorbikes (he was 1958 Italian 175cc champion) and included karting and spannering for his elder brother Ernestino, himself a multiple national champion on two wheels — and on four when he won the ’66 Italian F3 title. Vittorio, though, didn’t race a car in anger until ’68. `Tino’ was by then on Ferrari’s F2 books and his F3 car, a Brabham BT21 modified by kart maker Bird, had become vacant.

The wins soon started to come and Vittorio stepped up to F2 in 1970, impressing on his debut at Montjuich Park by dicing with the Tecno of Clay Regazzoni — the eventual champion — until his ageing BT23C’s clutch failed. He gave another display of promise in August. Having updated to a BT30, he went nosecone-to-gearbox with Rindt, Ickx, Fittipaldi and Hill in a pair of Salzburgring slipstreamers, finishing aggregate runner-up to Ickx’s BMW 270.

“He had a dyno in the basement of his block of flats”

Vittorio’s next two seasons of F2 yielded few results. What they did bring was increasing sponsorship from Beta Tools and a BT38, which he used to clinch the 1972 Italian F3 title. He was already 34, and there’d been plenty of scrapes along the way — but mending the bends was part of the fun. The family garage on Via della Birona — within earshot of the Monza track — was a petrolhead mecca, with Vittorio its genial host.

“Everybody liked him,” says Peter Briggs, then chief mechanic at Surtees. “He lived in a block of flats — and he had a dyno in its basement. There was Tino, fiddling with the distributor, while this engine was running flat-chat. The building was shaking. Yet everybody who lived there loved it.” This blue-collar charm would come in handy as Briggs’s men replaced the 14 nosecones put out of joint during Vittorio’s ’77 F1 season with Surtees.

Formula One had long seemed a distant dream to a man with a wife, three children and a thriving business. But it came a lot closer to reality in 1973: Beta bought Brambilla a new March 732. With it came the dominant BMW four-pot — and the pressure of expected success — and suddenly Vittorio was Mr Consistent. And then he won, at Salzburgring in September. Two weeks later he won again, at Albi. He finished (net) fourth in the F2 standings, but his (gross) points haul was the season’s second best. That leap to F1 no longer looked so daunting: £50,000 from Beta would clear it.

From the archive

That jaffa March first assailed the GP public at Kyalami in 1974. Beta had coughed up and Brambilla replaced Howden Ganley alongside fellow rookie Hans Stuck. He threw away his best qualifying of the year — 10th, at only his second attempt — when he crashed in practice at Jarama, but thereafter he strung together a sensible learning year. The highly rated Stuck scored more points (5:1) and edged the qualifying battle (7:5), but was more inconsistent. The Monza Gorilla had quietly established himself. The chest-thumping would begin in 1975.

“That was a really good car,” says Herd of his 751. “It was just an F2 with a DFV in the back — but it was small, light, fast in a straight line and well-balanced. We didn’t have the money to make it last the distance at full race pace; it only had F2 brakes, and so I loved the exuberance with which Vittorio attacked the opening laps. He was sensational in qualifying too.”

Brambilla’s pole in Sweden was the result of jiggery-pokery — Herd craftily swept the signalling board across the timing beam a few tenths before his man arrived — but his third-row slots at Montjuich and Monaco, and his second-row at Zolder, were genuine. There was a period when he was the most consistently quick DFV runner, although his brief spells in the lead in Belgium and Sweden ended in retirements.

He was restored to the top of the timesheet at Silverstone in July, thanks to a reworked 751. Second fastest on Friday, he slipped to fifth on Saturday as his engine was down on power. He had every reason, therefore, to become frustrated as his car, misfiring through left-handers, slipped to 15th in the race. Instead he kept it calm — and on the island. Throw in a little ESP with Herd, and suddenly a win was in the offing…

It wasn’t the red mist that got him — it was the red flag. There was much debate as to who had finished where. Although the persuasive Max Mosley represented him, Brambilla was eventually credited with sixth. His 56th lap, it was said, had been completed after the red flag. In fairness Fittipaldi was a deserving winner; it seemed less fair that the four others ‘ahead’ of the orange March had all ‘finished’ in the catch-fencing. Revenge would be citrus-sweet one month later, in similar conditions, at the Osterreichring.

From the archive

The start of the Austrian GP was delayed by over an hour because of rain. It was still raining, albeit not as hard, when matters got under way — and the field was still very wary. Except Brambilla. From eighth on the grid he was third by lap six. His progress slowed during a lull in the rain, but when it returned with a vengeance he dealt swiftly with Niki Lauda and James Hunt to take the lead — and opened up a 27sec gap over the next 11 laps.

What happened next fuelled The Monza Gorilla legend. Surprised but delighted to see the chequer after just 29 laps, Vittorio flung an arm up in celebration, spun and clanged the barriers. Images of his damaged car completing one of F1’s more unusual laps of honour have clouded the day’s real story. This wasn’t a victory lucked into by some clown, it was the result of a sparkling display of car control. His moves at Boschkurve made onlookers cringe — but he pulled them off. His fastest lap was two tenths quicker than the next best. His spin was not the result of a lack of skill but of a surfeit of joy.

Once again there was post-race confusion. The weather was lifting and Tyrrell wanted a restart. This time Mosley came up trumps, pointing out that the race had been stopped with the chequer only; for there to be a restart it should have been flown in conjunction with a black flag. Game over. March, as a team, had scored its first GP victory.

“What a moment,” says Herd. “One long perpetual moment. When officials explained there’d only be half-points if the race was stopped at half-distance, we said, ‘Stop it!’ There was no chance of Vittorio backing off. On one lap he came past the pits following the ambulance! Max said that would be the last we’d see of him. Fortunately it wasn’t.”

Vittorio Brambilla with Robin Herd at Monza for the 1975 Italian Grand Prix

At the end of ’76, the Italian (right) was on his way to a split with March founders Max Mosley and Robin Herd (left)

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Brambilla, Beta and March carried their association into 1976. The qualifying speed was still there — 11 top tens — but there was a new benchmark: Ronnie Peterson. Tired of Lotus shenanigans, he had returned ‘home’ to March and his first race for the team was at Kyalami. “We all expected Ronnie to go a second faster than Vittorio. But it didn’t happen,” says Herd. “That says a lot about Vittorio.”

Brambilla not only outqualified Ronnie — as he would in Spain and Belgium — he outraced him. There were, however, extenuating circumstances. Peterson’s first chassis was eventually mothballed after a Zolder off, and only then was its cracked rear bulkhead discovered. With a new chassis from Monaco on, he began to exert the authority to be expected of the man considered F1’s fastest. He left March for Tyrrell at the end of the year, his reputation restored, having won at Monza. In contrast, Brambilla’s stock had plunged after several ill-considered moves and three crashes at the Nürburgring.

“I don’t think he was trying harder because he was being measured against Ronnie,” says Herd. “It’s just the way he was. He was almost 40 — we weren’t going to change him. For instance, he liked a glass or two of wine before a GP. Max didn’t think this the best preparation and tried to stop him. At one race Vittorio hid under Ferrari’s transporter to avoid detection.”

Brambilla ended 1976 strongly. He was a whisker slower than Peterson in qualifying third at Mosport and fourth at Watkins Glen — and at Fuji he had another mesmeric wet-weather charge; he actually passed Hunt for the lead — but spun as he did so. He was running fourth when his engine failed on lap 39. His time with March, however, was over. Herd was being pressured by BMW to concentrate on F2 in 1977, and so Vittorio signed for Surtees.

“I liked his Italian connection,” says John Surtees. “I was impressed with Dr Ciceri of Beta, and there was a possibility of working with Alfa Romeo. Plus Vittorio was the kind of driver who could provide the occasional strong result, which is exactly what my team needed then.”

Vittorio scored six points in 1977 aboard the TS19, but the spins and dings piled up. And his Alfa connection proved a hindrance, not a help.

“Vittorio’s original sportscar deal with Autodelta was for testing,” says Surtees. “But it escalated. That took up a lot of his time — and also affected his driving of our F1 car. I think Carlo Chiti [Alfa’s motorsport boss] was promising him this golden future.” Brambilla won four 1977 World Sports Car Championship races for the Milanese marque.

Brambilla and Surtees soldiered on into 1978, by which time Vittorio was the beleaguered team’s sole representative. He salvaged a point in the Austrian rain, but started his last five GPs for the team mired outside the top 20; John Surtees believes he was hoping to be sacked so he could work with Alfa’s nascent F1 test programme. The actual end of their relationship, sadly, was even messier.

Vittorio Brambilla's Alfa Romeo leads the ferrari of Jody Scheckter during the 1979 Italian Grand Prix at Monza

F1 return with Alfa, 1979 Italian GP

Hoch Zwei/Getty Images

Brambilla was on the back row at his beloved Monza when he got entangled in the multiple shunt that killed Peterson. Knocked unconscious by a wheel, he was initially considered at greater risk than the luckless Swede. “He was a big-hearted driver who didn’t necessarily think things out too well,” says Surtees. “He had lots of car control — but in the races he tended to let his emotional side get the better of him.”

Brambilla’s recovery was slow, but Alfa kept the faith and invited him to drive in the last three GPs of 1979. He was also its choice to replace the late Patrick Depailler at Zandvoort and Imola in 1980: he collided with Geoff Lees’s Ensign in Holland, spun out of last place on lap four in Italy— and announced his retirement from F1. He retired for good the following year.

Twenty years later, after watching Monaco qualifying on telly, he had a fatal heart attack while mowing the lawn. It wasn’t the sort of ending that had been widely predicted for him — but then gorillas, say the real experts, are fundamentally gentle.